Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Frost Warning? I'm Just Sayin'...

You remember last year how, not only was there frost but SNOW on December 4th?

Cabbages fight it off!
I don't think it'll snow this week, but we've already had a frost at my house, and it looks likely for Tuesday night.  Frost can damage plants even if the air temperature doesn't actually get below freezing.  This always seems like a hard fact to accept here in semi-tropical zone 9A.  But this is the time of year for that sort of thing.  Plants aren't hardened off.  The weather changes rapidly from mild, sunny days to bleak, chilly days.  What to watch out for?  Calm, clear, dry nights.

No ill effects.
The heat absorbed by the earth is released or radiated into the atmosphere at night.  Clouds help keep that layer of heat closer to the surface of the earth, and slow the radiation.  Wind helps mix cold air and warm air, maintaining a bit warmer air than might otherwise occur on still nights.  And humidity slows temperature change.  We notice this most in the summer, when our hot humid nights barely cool down to 80° before it's time to heat up again in the morning.

Amaryllis soft tissue ruined, but plants survived.
Radiation frosts can occur even if the air temperatures remain above freezing.  What's happened?  The surface temperature of the plant has dropped below freezing, even though the air has not, and if sufficient moisture is in the air, ice crystals may form. 

Night photo of frost-bitten tomatoes
The frost last week got the top of the tomato forest, but overall the plants look okay.  I think it's best to leave frost or freeze-damaged foliage on the plant, to provide a bit of protection throughout the winter.  If I pruned back to live, healthy tissue, more of the plant would suffer damage in the next frost.  Yes, it's ugly. After I harvest the tomatoes, I'll pull them out.  But landscape plants are best left alone, unpruned, until March.  You don't want to encourage new growth midwinter, either.

We like to get all excited about winter here, because we get so little of it!  I imagine those zone 4 and 5 gardeners are laughing at us right now, worrying about our little frosts.  That's okay -- I chuckle to myself when they complain about humidity!

Saturday, November 27, 2010


That's the name of this beautiful amaryllis.  You may remember that I heroically limited myself to one amaryllis bulb this year at the Garden Club of Houston's Bulb and Plant Mart.  I'm in the habit of forcing the amaryllis bulbs for the holiday season, then planting them in the garden to bloom forever more.  This usually results in blooms for Thanksgiving (if I've chosen a South African variety) or Christmas (if I've chosen a Dutch variety).  'Charisma,' as it turns out, is a Dutch amaryllis, but bloomed just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday -- and I was grateful. 

Amaryllis 'Charisma'
Truthfully, I never consider whether the bulbs are European or South African, though.  I look for a color that I don't already  have, and, to some degree, for height.  I like shorter, fatter stems that might not have to be staked once they are blooming on their own in the garden.

Growing amaryllis is as tradition in my family that goes back a century or more.  Some of the bulbs in my garden were handed down from my great-grandmother.  These long-lived plants are easy to propagate by division and also set seed, so once established, an amaryllis bed can carry on for a long, long time.  So whenever an amaryllis gardener in my family has to move, we dig up the bulbs before the house ever goes on the market and move them to a safe harbor.  Then we plant them in a new home, keeping the circle unbroken, if you will.

Amaryllis 'Charisma,' right before fully open
I have probably 150 or more individual amaryllis plants in my backyard, which is entirely too many.  I'm breaking all the garden design rules for texture and leaf shape.  I have one: long, sword-shaped foliage, which indicates a severe case of bulb mania.  I sometimes think I should try to restrain myself, maybe plant something else, maybe give away some of the amaryllis.  After all, they only bloom once a year and it would be nice to have something showy in other seasons, too.  But when all is said and done, I can't resist.  This is the first year, in fact, that I've been able to stop at just one!

Oh, well.  When I am all covered up in amaryllis leaves, just put a plaque on the front door and we'll call it a living memorial to my generations of gardening women forebears.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday: How We Made It Through

I don't know what possessed me.  I had the carpet cleaners come Wednesday evening.  We went to my in-laws Thursday for lunch.  And when we got home in the late afternoon, I decided to sell my car on craigslist.  Not quite realizing that it might conflict with the dinner for 10 I'd planned on Friday.

Stand back, please!
So in between simmering and stirring, sweeping and dusting, moving furniture, chopping onions and setting tables, I reached out for a bit of good old-fashioned spirits, in the form of sangria.  It was a cold, windy, blustery day, but a batch of sangria always makes it feel like summer.  Here's the recipe:

60 ml (2 ounces) brandy
.5  liter (or about 2 cups) Triple Sec
1 liter (34 ounces) Tom Collins mix
1-1.5 liters red wine (1-2 bottles)
1 orange, thinly sliced
2 apples, cored and thinly sliced

Combine and pour over ice in pitchers.  Apply as needed to stressful day.  As for craigslist, you're on your own!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Birdwatching: Minor Challenges, Major Thrills

Red-Shouldered Hawk?
I believe this beauty is a Red-Shouldered Hawk.  I'm forever getting them confused with Red-Tailed Hawks and part of the problem is that birds are named after their least conspicuous marking!  I mean, really!  Wouldn't you call this one a Red-Chested Hawk?  It's also pretty difficult to see the shoulders of a hawk, if you want to know the truth.  I was lucky with this one.  Usually they are perched above my head or flying.
Red-Tailed Hawk?
 Here's the picture of what I think is a Red-Tailed Hawk, from an earlier blog entry.  You can't really see the tail in this picture, but I can promise you, it doesn't look red.  Not to me at least.  Maybe we could call this one the "White-Chested Hawk."  If the names were more descriptive, I could probably remember them better!

These are two of our most common hawks, so I'll have plenty more opportunities to practice!  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Crape Myrtles Treat Us To Fall Color

Crape Myrtle leaf
Last year, it seemed like the Bradford pear trees were unusually colorful.  This year, it's the crape myrtles.  All around my neighborhood, these lovely ornamental trees area covering themselves in shades of red and gold.  Most of them, that is.  My trees, 'Basham's Party Pink,' do not seem particularly lovely, perhaps when compared to the neighbors' trees.

Within yards of my nondescript trees.
I'm not sure what variety of crape myrtles are planted in our common areas.  They're a small to medium-statured tree with pinky-lilac flowers, perhaps 'Muskogee.'  They're all in various stages of fall coloration and it's beautiful, especially on days like this when it's overcast.

They have a lovely, smooth bark, too!
Crape myrtles were introduced (from Asia) in 1747, and are common throughout the southern US.  We like to say they are "the lilic of the South," but having lived in northern climes, I have to disagree.  Crape myrtles lack the scent, which seems to me to be the main thing about lilacs.  But their bloom season is very, very long -- almost all summer.

Happy fall!
And then, too, we occasionally get these wonderful autumn days when the crape myrtles form a blazing backdrop for a few bare branches.  Enjoy!

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Favorite Fall Flower: Calendula

Keeps going and going!
No, not chrysanthemum. Calendula, or pot marigold. These cool-weather favorites are just the right cheery shades for fall. For me, they're untroubled by disease or insects and tend to reseed generously. The new seedlings don't often make it through our hot seasons, but I've got to give them credit for trying.

Stems are long enough for cutting flowers.
Calendulas are very tough flowers and really only need protection during severe (for us!) cold weather.  To tell the truth, I don't cover mine at all.  Most years, they keep on blooming right up through June before they start to look raggedy and spent.  If I were conscientious, I'd collect seed. But I'm not.  I buy them in the fall at the garden center and pop them in.  

Tend to sprawl -- not for the regimented gardener!
Calendulas perform best for me in full sun, although these seem pretty happy in morning sun.  They tend to spread out or sprawl, so I plant them about 12" apart.  They rebloom best if you deadhead them, but I never do.  You saw those dianthus back on Bloom Day:  they went into complete horticultural shock because I deadheaded them for their photo opportunity.  Never happened to them before and probably never will again!

Fencing keeps out garden predator dogs!
All parts of the calendula are edible, and I grow mine in the vegetable garden.  You can sprinkle the petals in salads or use them to give a yellow tint to icings, rice, egg dishes or sauces.  The leaves taste bitter to me, but you can eat them if you want to!

Triangle Flashback, I think...
Look for varieties like Art Shades, which are double or semi-double; Bon Bon, a fully double variety with a little dark center; Neon, whose orange petal-tips are edged with burgundy; and Triangle Flashback, my favorite, with a large, showy dark center.  Here's a hint:  calendulas look far better at home in your flowerbed than they sometimes do at the nursery.  Don't be afraid to buy them if they're full, lush and green but aren't blooming yet.  They will!  And they'll last and last and last.

Thanksgiving color scheme

Friday, November 19, 2010

Foliage Friday: Dianella tasmanica variegata

This is one of my favorite foliage plants.  Don't be fooled: the plant label will mention a flower, but it's insignificant.  The main attraction is the bright, clear variegated pattern of the leaves.  You may read that this plant can take full sun, but I think it performs better in morning sun or light shade. The variegated one seems especially sensitive to full sun and may suffer from burning on the margins if left to bake in the August heat.

See the tiny flowers?
Dianella tasmanica is more often called Flax Lily and is almost always evergreen here in zone 9A.  If you want to avoid freezer burn, cover the newly planted ones on frosty nights.  This species of Dianella gets about 2 feet tall and is getting more and more popular as a landscape plant.  You should be able to find it at most area nurseries.  Start with a rather larger plant, because it tends to grow rather slowly.  Dianella is a tough little plant, though, and should be relatively trouble-free once established.

Wonderful massed as a groundcover.
Some sources claim that Dianella is named after Diana, the Roman goddess of nature and hunting.  Maybe so!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Vegetable Garden Update

The garden is a good place for meditating.
Even though the sweet potato harvest was not so good, I still have high hopes for the fall garden.  Sometimes I think fall gardening is more a matter of luck than skill.  And I feel lucky!  No real bug problems so far, and believe me, I am knocking wood whenever I even think about this.

We decorate our veggie gardens!
I have these two little former square foot gardens, which have reverted to simply raised beds.  I like the neat look of the little dividers, but Mel and I have parted ways.  I think the mix he recommends is to peaty for our hot climate and I feel a little guilty about using up a nonrenewable resource like peat anyway.  Mixed in with the flowers, we have garlic, cabbage, fennel, oregano, two kinds of chives and marjoram.  Those are carrots hiding under the skirts of a calendula.

Mostly greens, onions and flowers.
Lettuce and onions mix it up with nasturtiums and sweet peas.  Almost time to pick that one row of lettuce.  Just in time for Thanksgiving!

The tomato forest with lettuce seedlings.
And speaking of Thanksgiving, it's always my hope that I'll have fresh tomatoes.  I'm getting a little anxious about that, though!  The tomatoes are probably 7 feet tall now and each one is covered with green tomatoes, but not a single one looks even remotely like it's beginning to ripen.  At the foot of the tomato forest, where the sweet potatoes were, I've planted more lettuce and carrots.

The frontrunners.
Will they be ripe for Thanksgiving?  I don't think so!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tree Mutilation Time Again

I get it about the electrical lines.  I do.  It wasn't all that long ago that Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast, leaving more than 2 million homes, apartments or businesses without electricity.  It took three weeks and more than half a billion dollars to restore power here.  Some of the trouble was caused by trees falling on or into power lines.  So I get it. But oh, my God!

Live Oak.
These trees have had their very hearts cut out.  I can't imagine how this is better than simply cutting them down in the first place.  The transmission line people say that their own foresters will determine whether it's better to trim a tree or cut it down.  I don't know what their criteria are, but I would bet that it has something to do with how much it costs to dispose of the tree and/or how much the tree owners complain.

An entire row of trees, all but destroyed.
And about those tree owners!  Sometimes the power lines are installed after the trees are already planted.  Sometimes trees grow up naturally under power lines and aren't cut down as seedlings by the mowers because they're sheltered by a fence line.  But sometimes, very large trees are planted directly underneath the power lines.  And some day, maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, their hearts will be cut out or their heads will be cut off.

What's left?

The sight of these mutilated trees is enough to give you nightmares. 

At least they hire certified foresters!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bloom Day, November 15

November is an odd sort of time in the garden.  It's fall here, such as it is.  The very few trees that change color and lose their leaves are doing so, while the last of the tropical gingers and hibiscus continue blooming.  In fact, bougainvillea is rejuvenated with the onset of cooler nights.  It's a fidgety time, I think.  Neither fish nor fowl.  We plant our pansies, snapdragons, violas and such now.  That's part of our fall color, and helps us cope with the loss of our coleus, caladiums, and vincas.  But it's not a real fall.  The weather will surprise you and the highs will climb into the 90s.  The next day, a chilly rain will fall, and even though it's 56° outside, it will feel like 46°.  An awkward disconnect between what it really is out there, and what it ought to be.  Especially if you've been reading glossy gardening magazines.

So here's what's still blooming in my garden.  A little fish, a little fowl, and really, none of the above.

Sweet Potato Vine.  It really flowers!

Basil gone to flower and looking artsy and soft-focus.
Butterfly Gingers continue to show off.
Dianthus dying of shock, because I deadheaded it before I took this photo.
Faithful pentas.
Calendula.  Very sparky!
Snapdragons -- a nod to the season.
Always in bloom, the Bottle Tree.
Every month, gardeners all over the world post pictures of flowers on their own blogs, and link to May Dreams Gardens, where Carol is gracious enough to host us.  Hop over to May Dreams Gardens and see what the rest of the world has in store for you!  Thanks, Carol!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Making The Most Of A Poor Harvest

This is half the sweet potato harvest for this fall:  it's all from one leftover 'Beauregard' planted near the tomato forest.  You may remember that this one plant easily covered 20 square feet and was pruned by repeatedly driving over it.  Maybe that had something to do with it...

Only one bucket!
Anyway, when all was said and done, we only got about four pounds of potatoes from that patch.  We decided to eat it all in one sitting.  If your heart is in good condition, you can make this recipe too: Sweet Potatoes Anna, modeled after the buttery French classic, Pommes Anna.  Preheat your oven to 400°.

Makes the Chief Engineer very nervous.
Now's your chance to use your mandoline that's been gathering dust all this time.  Slice about 3 pounds of potatoes as thinly as you can.  Mine are really too thick, but it won't matter much.  Melt a stick of butter (yes, an entire stick).

Rinsed and drained
Butter the bottom of a cast iron skillet or other ovenproof shallow pan, then arrange fans of potato slices.  When the first layer is completed, brush it with melted butter.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper and maybe a little bit of chopped fresh or dried thyme. 

Ready for oven!
Continue making buttered layers of seasoned sweet potatoes.  You'll need to press down with a spatula every so often, so that the layers compress together.  When you run out of sweet potatoes, pour the rest of the butter over the top (if there is any), sprinkle a final time with salt, pepper and thyme.  Pop into the hot oven for 30-45 minutes.  Keep a watchful eye after 30 minutes: it may burn on the top before it cooks all the way through, especially if your slices are thicker.  It's done when it's easily pierced with a knife or fork.

No inverting: it's a weeknight.
Remove from the oven.  If you're feeling quite like a TV chef, you can invert it onto a plate.  Otherwise, just serve and eat.  Last night, we had braised baby bok choy with ours.

We're hoping for better production from our other sweet potato patch.  It's planted with 'Bunch Porto Rican,' more plants, but in a smaller spot.  We'll see!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Foliage Friday: Sacred Fig

Ficus religiosa at the San Antonio Botanical Garden
Aren't those leaves pretty?  This is Sacred Fig, or Ficus religiosa.  It's considered sacred by followers of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.  Siddhartha Gautama was sitting under a Sacred Fig tree when he was enlightened. That tree was known as the Bodhi Tree and was destroyed in the second century B.C.

The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree.  Photo: N.Chamal, licensed under the Creative Commons Act.

A direct descendant of that original holy tree, the Bodhi Tree, still survives.  Known as the Sri Maha Bodhi, it was brought to Sri Lanka in 249 B.C. and is perhaps the oldest living angiosperm in the world. Certainly it is one of the world's great historical trees.  It serves as the parent for other Sacred Figs planted around the world.  Below is a Bodhi tree descendant, planted in the Foster Botanical Gardens in Hawaii.

Licensed under the Creative Commons Act.
These trees are native to India and prefer a tropical climate, but will tolerate life as a houseplant.  Treat as you would a Ficus benjamina.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Trees and Statistics

Did you see the publicity on the recent study, conducted in Portland, Oregon, that concluded that large street trees actually reduce crime?  Now I love trees.  But when I heard about this study, soon to be published in the journal Environment and Behavior, I felt a curmudgeonly skepticism rear its ugly head.

I love trees.  Even Bradford pears.
The study, performed by the US Forest Service, looked at several years of crime data, cross-referenced with aerial photographs, site visits and tax data.  In part because one of the authors lived there, the study was confined to a single police precinct area in Portland consisting mainly of single family homes.

I love trees.  Especially cedar elms.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the authors find that the presence of large trees is negatively correlated with crime.  Smaller trees, however, are positively correlated with crime.  Their conclusion?  Big trees prevent crime, while small trees cause crime.  I'm oversimplifying a tiny bit; the authors do explain in the final paragraph of a 29-page report that correlation is not causation, and that other variables are more strongly associated with crime and that unknown variables may have a large impact on crime prevention. 

I love Baldcypresses.
You wouldn't know that from reading the rest of the report, though.  Nor could you tell that from the press the study has received so far. For heaven's sake, don't put up burglar bars.  They're positively correlated with crime.  Make sure you have a tree that's at least 42 feet tall instead.

I love Weeping Yaupon.
I'm pretty sure that the large-tree factor is negatively correlated with crime.  I'm just not convinced trees are preventing the crime.  The same characteristics that cause people to care for trees is perhaps responsible for a (very slightly) lower crime rate.  How about, for starters, home ownership versus renting?  Income levels?  Education levels?  Previous history of crime? Economic conditions? Ethnic makeup?

I love conifers, too.
Oh well.  Perhaps I'm just experiencing a "Bah humbug!" moment.  May it soon pass!

You can read the entire study here.